There are two things that Quentin Tarantino does better than anyone in the movies, and both are on display in Django Unchained (2012). He’s a master deviser of tense dialogue, creating scenarios that are at once pulse–defyingly suspenseful but narratively sumptuous, like biting into a rich but poisoned apple. His greatest skill is as a brilliant synthesizer of inspiration, especially low inspiration, taking the trash at his feet and making a statue worthy of a museum. In Django there are nearly too many histrionic scenes and twice as many disparate genres, styles and influences all combined to create something that retains all the power of its forebears while being something completely new. The great thing about Tarantino is that he is always unchained, gloriously grabbing for as much as he can. If he tears off a little more than he can chew this time, which he does, he can be forgiven, such is the drawback of having such a sumptuous appetite.
Tarantino’s adroitness for saddling genre conventions onto strange horses has recently been trained on history and we’re the better for it. His last movie, Inglourious Basterds (2008), was his best in a decade and was a spaghetti western set during World War II in which a wonderfully ludicrous revenge fantasy is acted out on the Nazis. We’ve got a spaghetti western in Django Unchained as well but set in the AmericanSouth in 1858 and the tale of a man with no name who wants to spring his slave wife from the clutches of a deranged plantation owner. Of course, that man does have a name, it’s Django (Jamie Foxx), and he’s a slave himself until he’s freed by a bounty hunter named Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who needs Django to identify a bounty Schultz is after. Django proves to be a great shot and a fine help on the trail so Schultz teaches him the ways of the trade. The two hatch a plan to pry Django’s wife Hildy (Kerry Washington) away from “Candieland” the most imfamous plantation in Mississippi run by the flamboyantly amoral Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his ever-watchful head slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is revealed to be in many ways the brains behind Candieland, where slaves are made to fight slaves to the death, slaves are ripped apart by dogs, and slaves are put in a “hot box” under the harsh Mississippi sun for weeks on end. That plan of Schultz and Django, when it goes sour, goes bloodily so, and the cotton in the ground doesn’t go hungry for protein.
Though the list of influences is a mile long (I savored a winter wilderness sequence lifted from Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller ), Tarantino is focused on titles from the two areas of spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation movies. The film must take its name from Django (1966, Franco Nero, the title character, makes a cameo in the 2012 picture), a western by Sergio Corbucci about a gunslinger, but its biggest inspiration, I would think, would be The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) by Martin Goldman, about a rebelling slave who shoots his way to freedom. Tarantino is able to couple the style of the Italian westerns with the attitude and anti-authority message of the blaxploitation movies to provide something that isn’t quite either but wholly entertaining, and an experience that, despite its apparent simplicity, isn’t easy to shake.
This may be Tarantino’s most violent film (which is saying something), but there’s a subtle message to the carnage. When Schultz and Django kill a man, it’s typically as part of the dashing adventure storyline, and the men who meet their bullets are outrageously blown apart and their sanguine bits gush out like fountains. There’s even a tense shootout in the plantation house when the bodies of the fallen aren’t saved from bullets just because they’re dead and on the ground. However, here’s an artifice at work here that is also present in the old spaghetti westerns, making blood that resembles juice or wine more than the real thing. However, when violence is perpetrated against the slaves, there’s a stark and sobering realism. Tarantino is drawing a fierce line between the fantasy he’s creating and the disgusting but all-too-real horrors he’s setting it against.
Pit this movie against Spielberg’s studious Lincoln (2012), which is effectively about the same issue but appeals to the heartstrings and not the guts as Django does. I don’t believe that Lincoln is less powerful or pulls any punches (there is an image in Spielberg’s movie that has all the raw charge of some of Tarantino’s grittiest moments), but they go about them in different ways. Lincoln kindly asks you to have what it is serving; Django smashes your face into it. It’s a testament to where the two filmmakers are in their directing lives that they would make such different movies about the same subject, but there’s no ocean between the two men (in fact, what is Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark  if not a stylistic prequel to Basterds?); they are just two storytellers telling the same tale from different angles.
More than anything, of course, Tarantino is a showman and that, more than its message, is what gives Django the breezy energy that pistons the story ahead. At the front of that train is Foxx, solid as a rock, and Waltz, a little more reined in than his zany (and fabulous) turn in Basterds, and a Butch and Sundance of true outsiders: a German immigrant and a man unrecognized as such by the laws of his country. Pitted against their (relative) straightness is the whirling dervish of DiCaprio, a truly evil demon whose sickness is so complete it has infected his servant (though the dynamic between Candie and Stephen is left wonderfully ambiguous). DiCaprio doesn’t just chew the scenery he devours it, and while that level of cartoonishness (and he speaks faster than any Southerner I’ve ever met) might dull the effect of Tarantino’s commentary (there’s little doubt he’s Candie as a stand-in for every slave owner), it remains pointed enough to make a lasting impression. The show, however, is stolen by Jackson, who is so good at making lightning-fast turns from jovial to intense malice. Here he cheerfully demeans himself while oppressively handling those beneath him, exposing the practice of human ownership and nothing less than trickle-down damnation.
The best sequence is a variation on Tarantino’s best trait: the cat and mouse scene in which the cat becomes increasingly aware of the mouse and lets the mouse know about it. This was done brilliantly twice in Basterds, once at the opening of the film and again in a German beer house. In Django it’s a set–piece in Candieland at a gorgeous Southern table in which Candie is made wise by his buzzard Stephen to Django’s plot and turns the tables on them. It’s a great piece of writing, blocking and art direction, giving us lines with double meanings, multiple load-bearing conversations going on at once and a disgusting visual reveal.Candie is asked to leave the room to be filled in by Stephen, who has worked out Django’s scheme; he leaves the table and we see the heretofore unintelligible object behind him is a statue of two slaves killing each other, in honor of Candie’s favorite sport. This scene builds to such an operatic lather that when it comes to its blood-soaked conclusion, it’s hard to resist shouting, “Bravi.”
But opera is about excess and Django is not without that. Tarantino never quite marries the tone of the movie’s opening act, which establishes the history of Shultz and Django, with the Candieland main story. The first part is woven like a tall tale, a humorous yarn, and doesn’t mesh with the intense moral quagmire of the remainder. There’s plenty of fun to be had in the first act (look out for a great cameo by Don Johnson), but more focus would have served the crux of the movie better. In fact, the movie’s most entertaining scene is completely unnecessary: a gang, complete with proto-Klan head-sheets, has been organized to get our two heroes, but the posse can’t get off the ground because they discover they can’t see out of the sheets (“I think we all think the sheets was a nice idea but, and I’m not pointing any fingers, I think they could have been done better,” one of them says).
This type of Producers-style detoothing of the Klan is uproarious, but it’s a skit, and the movie would have been better served if its percentage of the running time had been used elsewhere, perhaps on Django and Hildy’s relationship, which is wonderful but seems incomplete. Also, the first half sets Django and Schultz up as Fistful of Dollars–style traveling mercenaries, which goes out the window when Candie arrives on the screen. These deficiencies simply keep the movie from perfection, not from being endlessly watchable. Besides, this is a Tarantino show and the good far out–paces the bad and the ugly is nowhere to be found.